AT A tiny shop inside a housing society at Malad West where he repairs and sells printers, Mahesh Bhoja wonders how a former employee went from issuing drunken threats to actually murdering a Dalit lawyer in Gujarat on Friday.
“All my employees are young men who sometimes drink and get all worked up. But I have always been able to talk them out of whatever they are going to do. Bharat is the only one who never listened to me,” he said.
Bhoja hails from Rapar in Gujarat’s Kutch district, the same town as Bharat Raval (22), who was arrested Saturday for the alleged murder of Dalit lawyer and activist Devji Maheshwari over his “anti-Brahmin” social media posts. The relationship between the three men goes much deeper than merely being locals of Rapar. Bhoja holds Bharat’s father, Jayantilal Raval, in high regard. “Bharat belongs to the Maharaj Brahmin community. Everyone in Rapar respects his father. I hired Bharat three years ago on his father’s request,” he said.
Maheshwari was Bhoja’s lawyer in a 13-year-old land dispute. “Devjibhai was a very brave man. He would never refuse to take up a case and promise to get it resolved. I had a lot of faith in him,” Bhoja said.
A senior member of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and of the Indian Legal Professionals Association, Maheshwari was critical of both Hinduism and Brahmanism. These writings and posts on his Facebook page did not go down well with Bharat.
“Bharat was fond of drinking. But every time he got drunk, he would start abusing people. He would become angry at Devjibhai’s Facebook posts. He could not tolerate anyone insulting Hindus or Brahmins,” Bhoja said. He added that his pleas to his young employee to stop fretting about the lawyer went unheeded. “Bharat is very hot-headed and abuses everyone in sight once he is drunk. The only reason he never swore at me to my face was because he fears me,” he said.
It was his “hot-headedness” that cost Bharat his job at the shop. A fortnight before the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March, Bharat’s drunken antics went too far, Bhoja said. “One night, he urinated on the entrance of the neighbouring shop. I was in Rapar at that time since my father had passed away. The next morning, I got a phone call from a resident of the society informing me of the incident and threatening to throw me out unless I reined in my employees.”
Bhoja said he had no option but to let Bharat go. “He denied having done anything but I showed him footage from the building’s CCTV camera,” he said.
Bharat returned to Rapar and drove trucks for the rest of the summer, Bhoja said. When the shop reopened two months ago, Bharat returned to Malad, where Bhoja had arranged for him to stay in a room with other migrant workers. “Bharat asked me to take him back but I said no. Even while he was working, he would spend most of his money buying liquor. I felt bad for his family. Bharat’s father is the only other earning member of the family but only makes Rs 5,000 a month working as a security guard. Bharat’s younger brother is still in college. Whenever I visited Rapar, I would hand over Bharat’s salary to his parents,” Bhoja said.
Bharat’s stay in Mumbai ended on September 21 after he suffered a sudden epileptic stroke. “He was looking for another job and I had him allowed to remain at the room because I couldn’t ask him to leave immediately. On Monday, I asked him to come with me to the market. When he fell down and started shaking, I took him to a doctor. I was so frightened that he could die under my watch that I insisted that he returned to Rapar. Bharat did not want to go home but the next day my brother put him on a bus at Borivali,” he said.
News of Maheshwari’s murder reached Bhoja on Friday evening within minutes. “Bharat’s father called to tell me what had happened. The police did not find Bharat in Rapar and I knew that he would come back to me,” he said. Detectives from Unit 9 of the Mumbai Police Crime Branch were waiting at the shop when Bharat came back Saturday afternoon.
“Bharat’s father told the police where he used to work. Once the police contacted me, I knew I had to cooperate and make sure that he came back and wasn’t scared away,” he said.
Bharat is believed to have told the police that he hitched rides on five Mumbai-bound trucks in Gujarat and completed his journey in a bus at Mira Road.
Bhoja does not describe Bharat as a model employee. In the two-and-a-half years at the shop, Bharat did not progress beyond learning to repair printer cartridges. “All he ever talked about was getting Devjibhai to stop his criticisms. I used to keep telling Bharat to ignore whatever Devjibhai wrote, to let it go, be grateful to have a job and enjoy what he had. I never imagined that he would go kill him,” he said.
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